For someone who speaks so often, and so fondly, of “democratic socialism,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) seems to have no idea what it is. On Wednesday, the two-time independent candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination delivered a “major speech,” entitled “How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism.” It was the second time he has attempted to describe this utopian society entirely free from want. And, just as in 2015, he left all but his most dedicated Berners wanting.
Sanders’ speech had much in common with the party he is, paradoxically, running both against and for. Most of his 2020 rivals have made the case for “the right to quality health care . . . education . . . a good job that pays a living wage . . . affordable housing . . . a secure retirement, and . . . a clean environment.” This does not exactly help distinguish him from a gargantuan field, or differentiate his vision from that of contemporary Democratic progressivism. The Senator quoted extensively from the Democratic Party’s proud past. FDR, Harry Truman, and MLK all made prominent appearances. Perhaps more newsworthy, to those on the right and left, was what wasn’t in the speech.
Namely, Sanders made no attempt at explaining what role, if any, markets would play in his society, and just how much, if any, economic activity would be free from state ownership and control. Although, from a man who complained about the myriad varieties of deodorant, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Sanders has frequently drawn inspiration for his views from both the not-at-all-socialist states in Scandinavia and the dictatorial regimes in Latin America. The implication one may draw here is that, under President Sanders, the basic freedoms which exist in Denmark and Sweden can somehow coexist with the total economic control exerted by Nicaragua and Venezuela.
He voiced his concern over threats to political and social liberty around the world from illiberal, authoritarian populists. Sanders name-dropped Vladimir Putin, Mohamed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Viktor Orban in Hungary. He even thew in China’s Xi Jinping, for good measure. On other left-wing regimes, Sanders was noticeably silent. This should not come as a big shock either, for someone who infamously honeymooned in the Soviet Union. To Sanders, it appears, only the right poses a threat to freedom and democracy, both at home and abroad.
If socialism is the way of the future for America, or even the Democratic Party, it certainly doesn’t show. Outside extremely safe Democratic districts in Detroit, Minneapolis, and The Bronx, pronounced left-wing candidates lost in last year’s midterms. Sanders is the only candidate for president who hasn’t shrugged off or shunned the socialist label. Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a relative moderate, by comparison, has spoken not of overthrowing capitalism but of trying to save it. Her programmatic progressive approach seems to be paying off at this juncture of the campaign. Warren is now neck and neck for second place with Sanders. Granted, his appeal to those too young to remember the wall coming down is undeniable. It’s yet to be seen if he can expand his base, or get them to the polls next year.